Flathead Pioneers

By Beacon Staff

With the creek of a saddle, the smell of campfire, and the repetitive wobble in each roll of the wheel, early pioneers endured long and treacherous days on their western travels. They were days filled with scorching heat and swarms of black flies. These pioneers were always looking for the next water hole. Yet, each understood the final destination and knew the journey would be well worth the trial once they entered the valley above the big lake. These settlers had heard talk of towns forming: Holt and its Ferry on the north end of Flathead Lake and Ashley along a meandering creek, further north in the valley. Kalispell, Columbia Falls and Whitefish would form as the Great Northern Railroad brought forth more people laying its tracks toward the West. Although, the Flathead has experienced much growth and change since those early days, remnants of the frontier such as a pioneering spirit and dreams of a simplistic but fulfilled life remain the same.

Despite being relatively new to the valley (15 years), I have observed a few of these remnants over my time here. Saying goodbye to our eastern home, my family traded the horse and wagon for an old Chevy pickup. Purchasing a large chunk of acreage north of Bigfork, Dad put in a road and started building a house. I found myself enthralled with the idea of making the land my own. While flagging the property lines we discovered a small bear den in what we referred to as the back 40. Later we also noticed ancient spring board stumps that had been scarred by fire but stood the test of time. Locals told us that these trees had burned in a fire that started outside of Bigfork in the early 1900s, burned over Swan Hill and all the way to the Jewel Basin.

Recognizing these connections to the early Flathead, I wanted to learn more. Studying the local history, I read about Bob Marshall and his 50-mile “day hikes.” This spurred me to explore and adventure on my own. Not only did I explore Glacier National Park and the Bob Marshall Wilderness, I began to traverse the back roads and look at unique properties around the Flathead. I soon realized a passion and one that would keep me up late at night scouring the MLS sites for properties and listings. Realizing that this passion could be a job, I earned my Realtor license and now get to help other people make there Montana dreams a reality.

Although our valley’s physical borders can be seen easily enough, it is diverse and unsuspecting at times. I still get excited to find those old homesteads that are tucked back along a country road – never knowing they previously existed. Flathead pioneers gave up big city life and the dawn of the industrial revolution to live a simpler quiet life in the West. Despite the simple life, an individual’s creativity and development for the land can clearly be seen. Many old homesteads demonstrate this in regards to the proximity of homes to water. As well as using the natural protection of a hill or trees to guard against wind and weather.

This creativity and development is seen in newer homes as well. The inner motivation that drove Everit Sliter and T.J. Demers to plot out Bigfork and Demersville (the predecessor to Kalispell) is this same motivation that interests us to buy that city lot with a “fixer upper” or the vacation home on the lake. It’s something we can call our own and design to our own specifications. Likewise, it’s a choice that we have made to leave some of the busy world behind and form small communities where we know one another more intently.

A dream brought those first settlers west, those pioneers that saw an opportunity for a fresh start and to utilize the resources around them. It’s this same vision that brought my family, a century later, to a place I will always call home. Likewise, it’s a dream that a fulfilling life can be lived with some hard work and a pioneering spirit.

Chuck Shields is a realtor at Trails West Real Estate.

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